As the nation pauses today to remember the victims of Sept. 11, a look at what has really changed in the past year.
By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002
For all the talk of how Sept. 11, 2001, "changed things forever," daily life in the United States has changed remarkably little in the year since. It has not changed even a fraction as much as it had by the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1942.
In most American homes, the concrete effects have been peripheral. We have felt some of the economic aftershocks. There are more inconveniences at airports and in public spaces.
But there is no rationing. No universal hardship. No sacrifice in every home, on every block.
Americans are not making tearful trips to train stations and airports and seaports, surrendering our loved ones to Uncle Sam by the hundreds of thousands, knowing they might not come back.
It has not been that kind of war.
After the early burst of blood donations, and gifts to the victims, we largely have had to be content with putting flags on our cars and our lawns, and applying "United We Stand" bumper stickers.
(Remember how blood banks actually had too many donations soon after Sept. 11? Here would be a fine way to observe the anniversary: Go give some now.)
Yet in a way, the resistance of mainstream American culture to prolonged wallowing in Sept. 11 is itself proof of the character and resilience of a great nation. We grieved, we honored, then we rolled up our sleeves and dug ourselves out. It is in that same spirit, over the past century, that we twice saved the world from tyranny, and then rebuilt our friends and enemies alike.
One year, already.
More than 3,000 lives taken.
In sheer numbers, it was even bigger than Pearl Harbor, where 2,403 were killed.
But it was worse in other ways, too, and that leads us to what has really changed about America in the past year.
The civilian victims of Sept. 11 were unlike the men and women who accept risk along with a military uniform. They were blissfully ignorant of their status as combatants and targets. There was a war on, but they didn't know it.
Then the planes hit the World Trade Center and they called their wives and husbands and children and lovers on their cell phones. They said: I love you, goodbye, goodbye. And they died. Those who died in the Pentagon attack didn't have even that much.
The Sept. 11 attackers hated the United States, hated western culture and hated the free human mind.
But that day was more than that.
It was a declaration that Americans no longer had the right to security at home. It was a claim that any group of fanatics in the world could reach inside the borders of the United States, blot out the lives of Americans with impunity, and then brag about it on videotape and cable TV.
Here is what has changed, more than anything else:
We learned that it is possible.
The question remains still, a full year later, what to do about it.
If you boil down the rhetoric and finger-pointing and investigations of the past year, a simple truth emerges:
We knew plenty in advance. It was almost reassuring, in an odd way, to find out how much we knew. We just didn't know it all at once, and we didn't know it all in the same place.
The failure to put together the puzzle is a classic story of bureaucracy and inertia. Bureaucracy is a more prosaic villain than evil conspirators, yet it is part of the reason that Sept. 11 was possible.
We have spent a lot of time over the past year talking about making changes in America that miss that point entirely. Some of these ideas, even had they been in place a year ago today, would not have prevented a thing.
At times some of us have been too eager to trade the essential free character of American society for more government power -- as if the government keeping track of everybody's library checkouts would fix everything.
Our debate has often reversed the traditional meanings of "liberal" and "conservative." By and large, political conservatives have argued for increased government power in the name of countering terrorism; it is the old big-government liberals who resist.
Yet even were we to adopt every scheme, every Ashcroft idea, still -- as the White House and the Justice and Defense departments have warned us repeatedly -- there is no guarantee we can't be hit again, and hit in some new way.
So intelligence remains the key -- not only digging it up, not only possessing it, but knowing what to do with it, and whom to tell. The yardstick ought to be whether we're increasing the chance of an FBI agent in Arizona noticing an agent's report in Minnesota, and somebody at the CIA flagging it all, and bells and whistles going off.
Are we more secure than a year ago?
We are more alert, certainly.
Compared to living in fear, or living in a police state, that's better.
The 1990s were a domestic decade for us. It was the first time in a half-century that we had no single Enemy, no looming Other to dominate our worries and focus our policy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we were left the world's only superpower.
Americans enjoyed -- even insisted on -- a spell of isolationism. We rode the longest economic boom since World War II. We bought SUVs and took the kids to soccer camp. Occasionally, the papers reported we had lobbed missiles in some global trouble spot, but most people paid little mind.
One year ago today, we were yanked back into awareness of a troubled, dangerous world, filled with many nefarious characters who not only hated us, but had now demonstrated the capacity to reach us.
In the first months after Pearl Harbor, the United States had suffered one humiliating loss after another at the hands of the Japanese. Churchill called it "a cataract of defeat." The tide did not turn until the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
Imagine if, in the fall of 2001, we also had been forced to stomach a string of brutal defeats, modern-day Bataans, broadcast live on CNN.
Instead, we had short-term success. We turned our power on Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban, which had given shelter and territory to the terrorists.
Yet even there, it seemed maddeningly difficult to keep an eye on the ball. We were distracted at the war's onset by the anthrax scare, both real and hoax, here at home. As for the war, sometimes it began to seem as though removing the Taliban had become our primary goal, not a means to an end.
By mid-March, the president -- who originally demanded Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" -- was professing barely to remember that Osama had not yet been accounted for: "I just don't spend that much time on it, really, to be honest with you."
Right. One imagines FDR pretending to have forgotten Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral who carried out Pearl Harbor. Just the opposite -- we finally tracked him down and killed him.
One year after Sept. 11, then, there is disquiet at both ends of the spectrum over the success of the U.S. response to date.
There are those who say we should fight hatred of the United States with aid, and peace, and cooperation, and an open ear, as befits a great and civilized nation.
And there are those who say we must track down and punish and eradicate all those who lent support to this attack on America.
One year after, it is hard to see how a strong supporter of either of those points of view can be satisfied. The contrast with the America of December 1942 -- a nation united in hard work and resolve toward achieving a crystal-clear goal -- could not be more stark, nor more frustrating.
On Sept. 17, 2001, the president of the United States visited the Washington Islamic Center, located two miles from the White House.
Those who strike out in a backlash of anger against Arabs or Muslims in general, President Bush said, "represent the worst of humankind and they should be ashamed of their behavior."
Remember, this was six days after the attacks. How many nations, wounded as we had been wounded, would have the capacity for such a thing?
Certainly, there were dozens, even hundreds, of episodes of backlash reported around the United States. But they were the exception. There was no general, racist backlash in mainstream U.S. society against the religion of Islam. There was no repeat of what happened to those Americans of Japanese descent whom we rounded up wholesale and imprisoned during World War II.
It is possible, every now and then, that we learn from history.
We acted well as individuals, too. Americans on an airplane flying over Pennsylvania realized that something was happening and took matters into their own hands. They told each other: "Let's roll." Who can say how many lives their own sacrifice saved?
We caught Richard Reid trying to light his shoe and destroy yet more lives.
Other times, we have strayed a little from the things that should characterize our nation. One example is that we considered creating an office of disinformation -- an office of lying to the world. We were temporarily unmindful of the fact that the truth has always been the greatest American ally.
After all, all those who sneaked a listen to Radio Free Europe during the Cold War didn't do it because they liked our lies better than the Communist lies. They thirsted for our truth. Ironically, our flirtations with lying only weakened our credibility when we do have the truth to tell -- as when we released the videotape of Osama, and were outraged that so many in the Arab world could claim with a straight face that we had faked it.
One year, already.
Now we will have solemn and appropriate observances of the anniversary. There will be very few Americans unmoved by the experience.
Yet the anniversary is a time for clear-headed thinking, not jingoism. We can love America and still discuss how to do better. There is no doubt that in some places around the world, we have given some people cause to resent us, even hate us. Sometimes our policy has been necessary, and sometimes it has been merely arrogant. We all should pay more attention to what we are doing in the world.
But no policy, no political difference gives any critic of the United States the right to make war on us.
In the end, it comes down to this: Extremists who hate us on a variety of pretexts -- our presence in certain lands, our cultural "decadence" -- struck against us. Their real reason is that they know their brand of tyranny over the human mind cannot survive in the face of freedom.
On this anniversary, let us dedicate ourselves to remembering Sept. 11, and those who perpetrated it, with every bit of the fresh horror and sorrow and anger and resolve that we felt on that awful day. Let us not be distracted by bickering politics, or money, or divisiveness. Let us not be turned away from doing what we ought to do. Anything less will be acceptance of what was done, and we cannot accept it. We can never accept it.